Understanding the Work of the UN Human Rights Council
Created in 2006, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is the main international organization within the UN tasked with protecting and promoting human rights. The council replaced an older organization within the UN that had a similar remit.
The council consists of 47 UN member states who serve three-year terms. Membership is allocated on a regional basis, with 13 seats available to African states, 13 for Asia-Pacific, six for Eastern Europe, eight for Latin America and the Caribbean, and seven for Western Europe and others. Members are elected by the UN General Assembly. In addition, the council maintains a trust fund to help so-called Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States participate in UNHRC.
UNHRC meets about 10 weeks per year at UN offices in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss violations of human rights and means of promoting human rights. Emergencies and country-specific issues are often the focus of discussion. The council also has the power to launch international fact-finding missions and inquiry commissions to investigate, identify, and publicize human rights violations and violators. Sometimes, UNHRC calls special sessions when there is an urgent need.
Human rights violations are often brought to the attention of the council via a formal complaint. Complaints can be submitted by any person, group, non-government organization (NGO), or UN member state, and they can accuse any UN member state, not just members of the UNHRC. The council stipulates that complaints must be submitted in writing and must focus on patterns of serious human rights violations, like oppression of a minority ethnicity or inhumane prison conditions for detainees. They should also contain the relevant facts, such as names of victims, dates of abuse, and other evidence.
Additionally, the council conducts a review of the human rights records of 42 UN member states every year and makes recommendations for improvement. Each state’s records are reviewed once every four and a half years. This Universal Periodic Review gives member states the opportunity to report on what they’ve done to improve human rights within their borders and the challenges they face in the process, as well as to request help.
The UNHRC also relies on an Advisory Committee that conducts research to inform the work of the council. Its past studies have examined issues like post-disaster recovery, missing persons, corruption, the human right to food, and hostage-taking by terrorists. The committee’s members have a variety of professional backgrounds and are elected by the council.
The UNHRC has faced criticism about its effectiveness and fairness. When the creation of the council was proposed in the 2000s, the U.S., under President George W. Bush, opposed it, pointing to the membership of repressive states. Subsequent administrations have flip-flopped back and forth on U.S. involvement in the council. The Obama administration sought a seat, the Trump administration withdrew from the council, and President Biden campaigned for the U.S’s return to the UNHRC for its current 2022-2024 term. The membership of certain states continues to be controversial—most recently, NGOs have criticized the human rights records of Cameroon, Eritrea, and the UAE, all of whom are serving on the council alongside the U.S. for the 2022-2024 term.
Observers have also noted that some countries cynically seek a seat on the council only to protect themselves from human rights complaints. Human Rights Watch Deputy Director John Fisher, in an article in 2019, stated that China has used its UNHRC membership to try to silence international scrutiny of its own record on human rights.
Bloc voting is a related concern. In 2020, 53 UNHRC members backed China’s national security law in Hong Kong, which was implemented without input from Hong Kong’s government and meant to “prevent, suppress, and impose punishment” for actions deemed subversive, secessionist, terrorist, or committed in collusion with foreign or external forces. Details of the law were not revealed until after it was passed. Protestors and human rights organizations have described the law as an oppressive crackdown on dissent and freedom of speech. Of the 53 UNHRC members that defended the law, more than 40 were participants in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure development project involving investments in over 150 countries and organizations.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, that conflict has been one of the council’s most-discussed topics. Russia’s recent attempts to rejoin the council is another prominent news story.
The council is working with other UN organizations, governments, and NGOs to provide relief on the ground in Ukraine. With UNICEF and other partners, it has established Blue Dot Safe Space, Protection and Support Hubs in areas where refugees are arriving. People can find safe refuge, support, and information on finding health care, education, and other services there.
The council has also created a special independent commission to investigate human rights violations during the conflict. In an update on September 25, 2023, the commission reported that it had documented evidence of war crimes by Russian armed forces, including attacks on civilians and medical institutions where there was no Ukrainian military presence, the use of torture in detention centers, and rape and sexual violence against women. The commission also said it was investigating allegations of genocide; the previous week, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy told the UN General Assembly that Russia was “clearly” committing genocide and had kidnapped tens of thousands of Ukrainian children.
Despite this, Russia is simultaneously seeking to rejoin the UNHRC after being expelled in April 2022. The BBC reported that it had obtained a copy of a document that Russian authorities were distributing to UN members to try to gain their support. The document contained promises to find “adequate solutions for human rights issues” and Russia’s intent to prevent the council from serving as an “instrument which serves political wills of one group of countries.”